How To . . .

The phrase that's launched a million ads still reels prospects in.
Magazine Contributor
7 min read

This story appears in the September 1998 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

The next time you find yourself gnawing on the corner of your pillow at night in frustration over not being able to fashion a compelling headline, try this: Grab a pen and simply put together a headline that starts out "How to . . . ". How-to headlines are almost always provocative because they typically offer the promise of immediate instruction in an area of keen interest.

Imagine if, during a moment of intense frustration over such an advertising task, you came across an ad that started out "How to Create a Grabby Headline." Would it get your attention? I've been in the headline cobbling business for eons, and I can tell you it would still cause my eyeballs to distend. No matter what your business, I guarantee you there's a headline leading off with "How to . . . " that has the pulling power you've been searching for.

Let's say you own a restaurant and are looking for a catchy headline to promote your savory steaks. I might suggest a headline that reads something like: "How to Order Your Filet Mignon at Delmonico's." Since the reader assumes there's going to be some new instruction they weren't aware of or expecting, they're likely to read that set of words. Perhaps the copy reads: "We don't care if you prefer rare, medium-rare or well-done, but always order Delmonico's filets with a side order of the cole slaw that food critic Ruth Reichl calls `an accompaniment that belongs in the Cruciferous Hall of Fame.' "

Now remember, I'm characterizing how-to headlines as fallbacks--solid possibilities that can perform admirably in the absence of creative genius. One steakhouse showed just such genius in a headline that humorously characterized its fleshy fare as "Horrifying Vegetarians Since l947." But coming up with such an extraordinary headline is unusual even for professionals, so it's no reflection on you if one of those gems doesn't instantly come to mind. While you're waiting for that stroke of creative brilliance, a how-to headline may be just what the advertising doctor ordered.

That's my message to David Rones, who wrote in recently. Rones owns Competitive Edge Communications, a Marietta, Georgia, company that publishes Promotional Times, a custom-imprinted newsletter for advertising specialty firms seeking ways to keep in touch with customers and generate business. Rones' current small-space ad (running in a trade publication) makes some solid copy points, but it could benefit from a stronger headline as well as a clearer emphasis on the value of cultivating your customer base.

To that end, I recommend a headline that reads: "How to get your clients to order more . . . and more often." Then, the lead-in copy pays off with "Send them the monthly idea-generator that shows them how they can use advertising specialties more effectively than ever!" The rest of the copy would pick up on some of the current ad's points, with added emphasis on the value of to existing customers. These suggestions should give the ad the additional punch Rones is looking for.


This ad has good intentions and fulfills some of them, but it needs to work harder.

1. The headline needs to percolate more. A small-space ad needs a distinct voice to be heard.

2. A prominent free-copy offer is missing in action.


This revision attracts readers with a "how to" approach that's tried-and-true.

1. Although not likely to win an award for creativity, this headline arouses curiosity.

2. A strong free-offer footline is the best call to action.

Q: I'm a therapist and consider myself highly skilled in the field of manual medicine, but it's been hard to establish a referral network with doctors and other medical professionals whose patients could benefit from my services. Can you give me any suggestions?

A: One of the best ways to establish with doctors is to be published in your area of expertise. To many physicians, this, and only this, says you're worthy of their time. To make this happen, you need to send a query letter to publications in your field, which in your case might be magazines on natural healing and alternative (or complementary) medicine. The letter should pitch a story idea on your particular specialization and what it has to offer patients (I explain later how to write a query letter).

If you've written something that's been published in a reputable publication, you can use it as a credible and powerful promotional device: the publication reprint. Send the reprint of your article along with a brief cover letter to a targeted mailing list of doctors. Ask each to read it and then consider your qualifications. Being published communicates that a discerning publication thought well enough of your knowledge to publish an article you wrote. A reprint can have twice the impact of a brochure in terms of establishing your credentials and simply getting you noticed. You can also highlight in yellow selected portions of the article that make a good case for what you do.

As for writing a query letter, keep it brief and intriguing. That is, don't start out by saying "I'm interested in writing an article on the medicinal benefits of massage." Such an opening triggers an editor's yawn reflex. Instead, the letter needs to open with words like: "Imagine if, with a slight fingertip manipulation behind your ears, I could stop your migraine headache within five minutes. That's the skill I have as a massage therapist . . . one I think would interest and fascinate your health-conscious readers." This will make editors perk up and get them to phone you.

Q: I've heard direct marketing experts extol the "lumpy envelope" approach to getting a mailing opened. Can you explain that?

A: It's pretty simple, really. Envelopes that arrive in the mail with a dimensional item enclosed (thus creating a lump) get noticed and opened more frequently than traditional flat promotional mailings.

So what can you put inside your mailing? The ideal item is a product sample small enough to fit, yet still big enough to provide a noticeable lump. If you make ball bearings, stick one in your promotional mailings to prospective buyers. If you manufacture shampoo, include a small sample packet of the stuff for recipients to try.

Items can also be there simply for the symbolism. For example, if you put in half of a friendship bracelet explaining why you want to establish a relationship, or a small multifunctional bottle opener to represent your varied services, you'll get attention. If you send your widget and one of your competitor's for comparison, that can be a superpotent form of salesmanship if your product is obviously superior.

And if you really want to make an impression, send an item in a padded "jiffy bag" or even a small box along with a letter that discusses the sample. With the direct-mail tonnage that arrives each day at the doorsteps of your prospects, it can help immeasurably if yours literally "sticks out" from the pack.

Jerry Fisher is an advertising copywriter, consultant and author of Creating Successful Small Business Advertising ($39.95), available by calling (800) 247-6553. If you'd like Jerry to consider your materials for a makeover in this column, send them to "Ad Workshop," Entrepreneur, 2392 Morse Ave., Irvine, CA 92614, or e-mail him at

Contact Source

Competitive Edge Communications, (800) 575-8050,


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